The Pumpkin Eater by Penelope Mortimer
Published by Penguin, 2015 (first published in 1962)
My rating: ⭐ ⭐ ⭐
With biting hints of the rise in feminism that was to come, Penelope Mortimer’s The Pumpkin Eater chronicles the breakdown and attempted mental reconstruction of a woman left deeply unsatisfied by her role as wife and mother. There are whispers of scandal and rumour bubbling beneath the surface, and an oddly gripping quality to the somewhat scant narrative. That said, the book focusses on a perceptive look at society, and a sense of subtle power, over any salacious shock value. In that respect, it’s the kind of feminism that feels quietly revolutionary for its time, rather than anything particularly ground-breaking for the modern reader.
Speaking of this book feeling ‘of its time’, there are several uses of uncomfortably outdated racial and queer slurs. There’s an argument for making contextual allowances for this kind of thing in classic literature, but I can’t pretend it didn’t jar me out of the story. Once you get beyond this (and thankfully most examples come early in the book), Mortimer’s prose feels very sharp, particularly in her use of dialogue. There’s a bluntness to the heroine’s narrative voice, and this allows for moments of dry, deadpan humour.
By moving back and forth through time to examine several formative relationships and experiences, we see how often the protagonist has sought happiness in the wrong places, based on external pressures and societal expectations more than genuine desire. We also see how often she has lacked autonomy, with various men (her father, her doctor, her therapist, and her husbands) repeatedly assuming they know exactly what she wants and how she feels without bothering to ask her. In this respect, the book looks at the everyday ways in which women were (and sadly still are) betrayed by the men in their lives, the roles ascribed to them, and sometimes even the fellow women they thought they could trust.
Having divorced several times, and accrued an ‘army of children’, the protagonist remains nameless throughout, having been consistently defined by her relationship to the man in her life at any given time. Her many children also remain nameless and numberless, hinting at the sense of disconnect she feels from her own life. There is one notable exception to this rule – her adolescent daughter, Dinah. Beautiful, on the cusp of adulthood, and thus beginning to emerge from the indeterminate mass of children as her own person, the reason for singling her out remained frustratingly unexplored. I wondered if perhaps the narrator, and Mortimer, saw Dinah as something of a second chance; a glimmer of hope that the next generation of girls may have the power and opportunity to forge their own identities. There was real potential in this thread, and I wish more had been done with it.
When the book is at its most honest and observant, it can be wonderfully poignant, like this section, in which our heroine realises she’s been left so jaded by life that she doesn’t even know how to be happy anymore: “I don’t know who I am, I don’t know what I’m like, how can I know what I want? I only know that whether I’m good or bad, whether I’m a bitch or not, whether I’m strong or weak or contemptible or a bloody martyr – I mean whether I’m fat or thin, tall or short, because I don’t know – I want to be happy. I want to find a way to be happy.”
If there had been a little more of this, a little less casual prejudice, and a little more punch and cohesion in the overall delivery, this could have been fantastic. As it is, it’s still a worthwhile read, and a perfectly valid cornerstone in the literary feminist canon.
If you’d like to give The Pumpkin Eater a go, you can pick up a copy from Book Depository by clicking here. If you’ve already read it, I’d love to hear your thoughts!